The best books are those that you just happen upon. I think that when you find a good book “out of the blue,” it’s like finding a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk. Your unexpected good fortune makes you feel doubly lucky.
While loafing in the stacks at the Orange Beach Public Library, I saw a copy of Dominick Dunne’s The Way We Lived Then. Once I realized that it was a quick, breezy account of his Hollywood years – with tons of photos taken by Dunne – I had to read it. It’s a very-quick read that holds the reader throughout.
Dunne (1925-2009) was the son of a heart surgeon from Hartford, Connecticut. Though the Dunnes were well off, they were Roman Catholic, which led to their exclusion from Hartford’s WASP social circles. Dominick said that his obsession with wealth, status, and power came from that early experience.
By the 1950s, Dunne was a married father and an up and comer in Hollywood, where he would live until the early 1980s. His passion for entertaining and connecting with the right people pushed his career forward. It is these salad days that The Way We Lived Then celebrates.
The book is an easy read, it’s momentum propelled by the fantasy life the Dunnes lived. The Way We Lived Then is an odd book of Dunne’s rise, fall, and (after leaving Hollywood) recovery. Dunne laments the shallow nature of Hollywood, but it’s clear that he’s discussing the best days of his life. When the Dunnes had their 10th wedding anniversary, they invited about 250 guests to their home, put their furniture into storage, and hired a decorator for that night. I wonder about the cost.
The human costs were huge. Dunne didn’t mind being catty with people and he says that he eventually came to be regarded as an “asshole” by the Hollywood crowd. He said that a lot of the people he associated with in Hollywood later flamed out. I guess that it’s a crowd where it’s difficult to stay on top. And, Dunne makes clear, in Hollywood failure is the one unforgivable sin.
There was one woman in Hollywood who attended up to three cocktail parties per day. Dunne says that he and his wife (Lenny) went out every evening. I can’t imagine living that way. I doubt that today there are too many women doing the party circuit the way it was done before – working full time makes it pretty hard to go out and paint the town.
The ride up was something else, however. He lived on the beach next door to Kennedy in-law Peter Lawford. He hobnobbed with all kinds of beautiful people. By the early 1970s, his career foundered after he became an addict and produced a bomb (Ash Wednesday) starring Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Fonda. Dunne ran afoul of power players Robert Evans and Sue Mengers after the press repeated a nasty joke Dunne made about Mengers’ marriage.
(A frustrating aspect of the book is that Dunne sometimes pulls his punches. Dunne doesn’t repeat the infamous joke, though it’s easy to find (http://boatagainstthecurrent.blogspot.com/2010/02/quote-of-day-dominick-dunne-with-ash.html). He also references an off-color joke that he made about an actor who’d had a colostomy, but doesn’t name the actor. While The Way We Lived Then is fun, it ain’t Hamlet and not getting to hear these anecdotes in full disappoints the gossip-hungry reader (i.e., everyone who’d be interested in reading this book).
This book is fluff – but it’s great fluff. For a trip to the Hollywood fast lane, it’s very hard to beat. I give The Way We Lived Then 9 out of 10.
Since “dish” is the whole point of the book, I’ll close with an anecdote about Frank Sinatra’s hatred for Dunne and a photo of the back cover –